The Gravy Train: Canada’s Government Employees

We’ve been using the term ‘the gravy train’ for a century to describe jobs with good pay with little work. Nowadays we use it especially for the rich and wealthy who we often accuse of earning far too much, for being far too lazy.

The problem with this expression is that it misses the big picture. In Canada, the largest group of gravy train riders aren’t the elected politicians at the top of the government tree, or the CEO’s on Bay Street, but the 99.5 percent of government which is unelected – I am talking about ordinary civil servants.

A record 18,300 people applied for the 14 vacancies on NASA’s astronaut program for 2017 – that’s 1 in 1,307 applicants.i In contrast, in 2006, the federal government of Canada employed 380,700 people – of whom 127 per year were fired between 1999 and 2009 for misconduct or poor performance.ii Between 2005 and 2015, an average of 132 were fired. That’s 1 in 3,000.

The chances of being fired for poor performance or misconduct from the federal government is twice as hard as it is to qualify for NASA’s astronaut program. You have to be extraordinarily inept to get fired from Ottawa, which is where most federal civil servants work.

Lest you’re wondering, it’s hard getting fired from provincial governments too – one Ontario teacher who made lewd remarks to female students, drank alcohol at parties with students, used profanity in the classroom and slapped female students on their buttocks received a month suspension from the Ontario College of Teachers – they didn’t even deregister him.iii

Not only is it impossible to get fired by Canada’s government, but its employees are much more ‘sick’ than in the private sector. In 2018, the public sector, nurses, police et al…. took off on average 12.2 days per year for being ‘sick’.iv Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. In contrast, private sector employees took only 6.9 days off. Quebec’s civil servants might be amongst the most ill in the world - they had to take off 13 days per year.

So, let’s get this right – it’s impossible to get fired, the definition of ‘sick’ is clearly skewered …… what more could there be? Well, you get paid more too! We are so deep in gravy train territory that no map can help us. In 2015, public sector employees got paid between 18 percent and 37 percent more than did their private sector counterparts.v 80 percent of public sector employees had a defined pension benefits scheme, in contrast to 10 percent of the private sector.

The next time we see the expression ‘gravy train’ we might think a bit about where the problem lies.